THE MERMAID AS… VINTAGE

Inspired by the mermaid exhibit at Buxton Museum, I thought it would be interesting to photograph some real-life, modern day mermaids. I’ll be posting the images soon but, in the spirit of working out loud, thought I’d share some of my outtakes.

I’ve spent 15 years working in picture libraries, including an old Fleet Street archive of 13 million images, dating back to the birth of photography. Think photos of Queen Victoria laughing and opium dens in Shanghai. My all-time favourites were the grainy snapshots of 1950’s America, when men wore hats and the entire high street looked cool. Though these everyday snapshots had been kicking around for decades, until they looked like litter, they still had a dash of magic about them, a cinematic charm. This was not the sanitised beauty of Mad Men but the rough growl of Tom Waits.

When I came to take my own pictures, I did my best to focus and take a ‘professional’ shot but the funny thing was, the less perfect my photos were, the more I liked them. They looked more authentic, as if they were taken in some old Long Island Freak show. It reminded me that there’s no right way to take a photo.

So, here are a few of my ‘outtakes’ that are now, proudly, back in. Huge thanks to Maša, a pin-sharp academic and National champion free-diver, who spent hours under ice-cold water and made it look effortless. Though I know Maša as a friend, when I first saw her swim by, my heart jumped. I thought, “Wow! Look! A Mermaid!’

 

 

 

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The Mermaid as… Cinema

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My name is Rob. I’m writing a story about Blakemere Pond, a desolate place in the Peak District, where rumour has it, a mermaid has taken up residence. It’s on Wikipedia, so it must be true.

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In the name of research, I scooped some water out of the pond and brought it back to my room. It’s now on my desk in a bottle and to be frank, it’s a little bit whiffy. But the fact that I had to trudge through the snow (and fall down a hill) in order to get it, makes it feel like a trophy.

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My goal is, to capture the romance of mermaids but I don’t want anything cheesy, like a girl in a tail who spends her days looking in the mirror as if she’s taking a selfie. I want grit. But how can I capture the spirit of a mermaid without resorting to cliché?

Like most people, my default choice of where to turn for artistic inspiration is the cinema. I’ve worked in film for 20 years, so have seen a truckload of movies but which one screams mermaid?

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The obvious choice is Splash! The 1984 cheese-ball in which Tom Hanks falls in love with the top half of Daryl Hannah and the bottom half of a carp (go figure). I also liked Jenny Seagrove’s aptly-named Marina in Local Hero, which was released the year before. But both of these are physical depictions of real-life women as opposed to something ethereal.

I like the look of the old films like Brief Encounter and Paper Moon, both absolute classics. I love that grainy black and white, film noir vibe, where the undercurrent is doom. But again, they’re not quite right for this project. They’re both whacking-great slabs of cinema history whereas my story is tiny and weird.

I have always loved weird, from the darkness of the Brothers Quay to the sheer, unadulterated joy of Tears of the Black Tiger. As a boy, I would stay up late and watch French films, dreaming of the exotic. I can still recall, as clear as day, the first time I saw In The Mood for Love. I couldn’t believe that so much was happening, when nothing was said, just two people buying a takeaway yet there’s so much passion, it could melt the chocolate off your Jaffa Cake. And besides, they’re not weird films at all, compared to Power Rangers.

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Then it came to me! My mermaid movie! It’s a Japanese horror flick called Dark Water. It’s not the greatest film I’ve ever seen but it’s been wedged in my head for the past 16 years. The story is, brace yourself… a woman is haunted by damp. How bonkers is that? It’s hilarious! There’s a patch of damp on her ceiling and it grows. There’s something ‘not quite right’ about it and that’s what hooks you in. As someone who hates damp, I can totally relate to it because all damp is creepy. But while I would hire someone to fix it, via Check-a-Trade, this heroine spends her time walking slowly up corridors until the bad thing happens! Da-da-Daaaaah!

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Like I said, it’s not a classic but it does capture the fear of the unknown. You know that something is out there, you just don’t know what. As with all of these films, when you do eventually see the monster, it’s not half as scary as when you didn’t. And that’s what got me thinking.

What if we never see my mermaid, she’s just a dark and brooding presence. She doesn’t swim in the water, she isthe water. And if she is a ghost, in liquid form, then how does she communicate? Does she use the water like wi-fi? Is a splash a giggle and the rain a round of applause?

I find myself staring at the bottle on my desk, the water I scooped from the pool. Wikipedia says is haunted, my nose says it stinks and the whole thing is creeping me out but I like that. Something is happening.

A story has begun…

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THE MERMAID AS… QUEST

My name is Rob and I’m a writer. I’m crafting the tale of a mermaid and am waist-deep in research. The story is loosely-based on two mermaids, both of whom live in the Peak District.

The first one is real. A tiny, twisted, terrible ‘doll’ cobbled together from fish skin and hair. It’s on display at Buxton Museum. In times gone by, sailors would bring back trinkets like these, to delight and enthral. It still does.

The second is a myth. A rumour that has hung around for hundreds of years, like a bad smell. The myth is this: a mermaid lives in Blake Mere pool.

Blake Mere

Blake Mere is a pool of water, high in the Peaks. Legend has it that deep in its depths lurks a creature so ominous, that to this day, “no animal will drink from it, no bird will fly over”. It’s hokum of course, but one thing’s for sure, Blake Mere has a history. You can sum it up in three little words:

Bad. Things. Happened.

Murders mainly, like the time they drowned an innocent girl. A man called Joshua tried to chat her up, but she rejected him. To get revenge, he called her a witch. In those days, that got you killed. A bunch of locals, with inch-thick foreheads, chucked her in the pool but with her dying breath, she hissed a curse. Three days later, Josh was dead, his face clawed by a beast! It would make a good horror movie. You could call it Peaky Blinders.

The other rumour is that a sailor brought the mermaid back from his travels. He kept her in the pool and they both lived happily ever after, until the sailor died. The mermaid found herself trapped in a pool the size of a nostril and got really, reallybored. Who can blame her? So, to pass the time, she started killing passers-by. Was she evil, bored or hungry? We’ll never know, as none of it is true. Good stories though. Blake Mere is full of them.

I wanted to see the pool for myself. The only trouble was:

  • It’s in the middle-of-nowhere
  • I can’t drive
  • There’s a blizzard

I needed a guide. One with local knowledge, who wouldn’t think I was bonkers. “Excuse me Sir, I’m looking for a mermaid, I’d like to capture her spirit”.

To say I hit lucky with Gordon, is an understatement. Gordon is an environmentalist, storyteller and all-round great human being. He knows the Peaks like the back of his hand and the stories that seep from it.

I liked him immediately. This is why. On the dashboard of his car were some strands of dried-out seaweed, as delicate as thread and extraordinarily beautiful, white as bone and a pale sage green that glows in the light. Remnants of a place he once knew. Nature, place and history, all perfectly entwined.

Those little strands of seaweed were, and are, some of the most beautiful things that I have ever seen. I deliberately didn’ttake a photo as I wanted them their memory to live in my memory, too precious to bung on a disk.

Snowy Peaks

The car roared through the snow, up and up, into the Peaks. A salt-white blizzard peppered with dark, looming shadows. Big old hills, like sleeping giants and cold.Cold as death. We passed places where travellers would rest as they trekked through the endless rise and fall, black birds that felt like a warning, roads that faded into a white wall of snow.

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At a crossroads, we stopped and did the last bit by foot. I skidded and slid down a snowy bank and… there it was. Blake Mere Pool. A silver diamond in a world of white.

Blake Mere Pool

I stayed as long as was safe and this is what I thought. This is a raw and barren place. So bright, it makes you squint. So cold, it’s like rats biting your face. You’d soon lose your fingers, way, mind… but there’s a savage beauty to it. A potency. A magic. It’s not a landscape at all, it’s an assault on the senses. You don’t look at it, you’re in it, feeling it claw at your bones till you’re no longer human, just a tiny speck in a blizzard, as fragile and worthless as a leaf in a storm.

I went there as a cynic and left it in awe.

It was magnificent.

I took out my old bottle and scooped up some water… brown water, blue fingers, white ice …then scurried back up the bank. Gordon was waiting, patiently, covered in snow like he’d been there for centuries. A good man. I owe him.

We drove back through the Peaks and the snow faded to dandruff. The little heater, on full blast, made the seaweed quiver, like it was scared and with good reason. We had just been to Blake Mere Pool.

Peak District Nov 2018

The liquid I took now lives on my desk, in an old vintage bottle. Nature, place and history, all perfectly entwined. As the inspiration for a story, it is where my journey begins…